Data and diplomacy in 2021

In 2021, an estimated 2.5 quintillion bytes of data was generated per day. Statistics show that by 2025, 463 exabytes of data will be produced on a daily basis. Described as the ‘oil’ of the 21st century, the potential of data to achieve breakthroughs in various industries and fields is significant. Diplomacy is no exception. Despite popular belief that diplomacy is traditional in nature, it is tasked to continuously adapt to an ever-changing world.

In the diplomatic context, data and related topics are addressed in international forums, but also at regional and bilateral levels. To illustrate, questions pertaining to data sharing have been addressed at the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) since its outset. Regional bodies, including the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Council of Europe (CoE), and the Organization of American States (OAS), have tackled the protection of personal data, while the USA and the UK have, for instance, bilaterally negotiated the issue of data access by which British legal authorities can access data from American communications providers without review by US authorities, and vice versa.

While the above mentioned are just few of the many developments, at a time where data has moved from scarcity to abundance, the diplomat faces new challenges and opportunities.

Making use of abundance

In order to make use of abundance, the first question one should ask is what is the potential of data in diplomatic practice.



Data could be used to better inform foreign policy, measure foreign and domestic sentiments, or to monitor quickly-unfolding emergency situations. In addition to serving as a tool, data arises as a topic on the diplomatic agenda, from data-sharing between countries and the protection of personal data across borders, to the regulation of e-commerce data flows and international standards related to data. Finally, referring back to the oil metaphor, i.e. data becoming increasingly valuable, it can be regarded as a factor in geopolitical power dynamics, placing significant leverage on those countries and actors that collect, store, and control data and its infrastructure.

Our work on data and diplomacy

The Data Diplomacy project

In 2017, DiploFoundation was commissioned by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Finland to conduct a research project on data diplomacy. The Data Diplomacy project included policy research, data policy seminars, and other activities which provided an overall analysis of the impact of big data on diplomacy and international affairs. The objective of the project was to:

  • explore the trends and best practices in data science that are relevant for diplomacy and international affairs
  • analyse the limitations and challenges related to the application of big data to diplomacy and international affairs
  • foster dialogue among data scientists and diplomatic communities
  • raise awareness and understanding on the topic of data diplomacy among foreign affairs officials

As a final output of the project, DiploFoundation launched the report Data Diplomacy: Updating Diplomacy to the Big Data Era in February 2018. You can also consult the press release and the executive summary.


In case you have questions, suggestions, or would like to get involved, subscribe to our Data Diplomacy mailing list or get in touch with the data diplomacy team at

Data and digital policy

In Geneva, the main operational hub of the United Nations and the international system, data appears in two major realms. First, data serves as a tool to develop better policies on health, trade, migration, and climate, to name just a few relevant areas. Second, data is a topic of diplomatic negotiations, addressing privacy, security, digital trade, and other important issues. To improve the understanding of this quickly-evolving issue, the Geneva Internet Platform (GIP) initiated in 2017 a series of activities and events called Data Talks which focus on how data is shaping our digital future.

Data Talks 

The Data Talks address the potential, as well as the risks, related to data management in international affairs. The meetings have so far tackled issues such as cloud computing, data protection, open data, data immunities, and data for monitoring the sustainable development goals (SDGs). Gathering actors from International Geneva, the discussions focus on sharing best practices and experiences acquired across silos and institutions. The outcomes of the first four Data Talks discussions are captured in the short publication Data and International Organisations: Navigating Cross-Sectoral Data Challenges which maps the main challenges and best practices of data-related issues.

Road to Bern…  via Geneva

Discussions on data did not stop there. Between January and October 2020, ahead of the World Data Forum, a series of Road to Bern…  via Geneva meetings, led by the GIP and the Permanent Mission of Switzerland to the UN in Geneva, were organised in order to explore the opportunities of data in the context of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Taking advantage of Geneva’s rich data and digital policy landscape, the dialogues were dedicated to the data life cycle: (i) collection of data, (ii) sharing of data, (iii) use of data, and (iv) protection and privacy of data. Each of the four dialogues was co-hosted by two Geneva-based international organisations as a way to engage entities of the Geneva ecosystem (WHO, WMO, ICRC, WIPO, ITC, CERN, ITU, WEF).

The practical applications of data

In light of the Road to Bern dialogues and reflections on the role of data as a tool, Diplo’s Data and AI team has developed the Data Engine consisting of the Data Sandbox and Countries-Companies Comparison tools.

The Data Sandbox aims to provide a better understanding on a wide variety of data sets ranging from climate change, COVID-19, and digital development. The tool has been developed with the intention to help diplomats and researchers identify patterns in a country’s position across the above-mentioned data sets and ultimately trigger further research. The Countries-Companies Comparison tool compares the GDP of a country with the market capitalisation of tech companies.

What’s next?

Join us for the various events related to data diplomacy, and get in touch with us:

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Training and courses



Enterprise Data Strategy: Empowering Data Informed Diplomacy (U.S. State Departement)

The Enterprise Data Strategy (EDS) aims to ensure that State Department’s workforce is equipped with the timely and relevant data necessary to make informed management decisions.... Read more...

This is the cover page of the US Data Diplomacy Strategy report


Updating International Geneva to the Data-driven Era (Briefing Paper #12)

In this briefing paper, Ms Rafaela Marinho and Mr Avi Krish Bedi outline their research on how international organisations (IOs) in Geneva address and use big data in their work.... Read more...

web page, Sahih al-Bukhari


Data Diplomacy: Mapping the Field

The adoption of open data policies and the standardization of data collection were among the recommendations made during DiploFoundation's Data Diplomacy Roundtable: Mapping the Field, a brainstorming event that took place on 5 April 2017 – on the role of (big) data ... Read more...

paper, Line